Grand Canyon Love Story chapter nineteen

By Jeep to Toroweap

by Helen


Parts of Grand Canyon are in the sphere of the Navajo Nation; for nearly 70 miles, their reservation’s western boundary borders Grand Canyon National Park. During two years while producing a documentary film on the land of the Navajo, we traveled by four-wheel-drive Jeep over more than ten thousand miles of their land, which is as large as the combined states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Possessing a Jeep — or any four-wheel-drive vehicle which frees one of the need to stick to main roads — can change one’s life. That was the case with us, in the years from 1954 to ’56.

On our Jeep trips to and from California, in studying our map we often noticed the thin line of a road leading south from St. George, Utah, to Toroweap Point on the North Rim of Grand Canyon.

Toroweap is one place to dream about. And we had been doing just that, for nearly ten years. We knew that it was one of the Canyon’s most cherished viewpoints. But we also knew that it was one of the most isolated — most difficult to reach.

Edwin Corle’s 1946 book, LISTEN, BRIGHT ANGEL, had first whetted our appetites for Toroweap. He wrote: “Here is something to take your breath away, literally and figuratively. There is no describing Toroweap Point. With that I’m sure any visitor will agree. Take a good look.”‘

Now that we had a Jeep, we decided to take such a look.

But which way to go? There were two routes into this remote section of the Canyon — one by way of Fredonia and Pipe Spring, Arizona, the other from St. George, Utah. Since Corle’s book had first stimulated our interest in Toroweap, and since he had described the route out of Pipe Spring as “a road in name only” we decided not to go from there.

It was a wise decision. We came back out that way and discovered that — in addition to finding a road in name only —we encountered 12 — we counted them — 12 wire gates strung across our route. Corle hadn’t mentioned these; perhaps they had been added since his book was written. One of us would jump out, get the gate unfastened and opened, let the other drive through, then fasten the gate again. “Gate” is a misnomer. They were mainly crude wire barriers strung across our path. Twice it took both of us, tugging and lifting, to get them unfastened.

After we had negotiated an even dozen of these barriers I started singing a song that I remembered, “Twelve Gates to the City.”

If we had gone in that way, all these gates, and the fact that we wouldn’t have known what was coming next, might have discouraged us. Luckily, we took the other route, which provided interesting adventures of its own.

Heading south from St. George, within six or eight miles we left Utah and entered the Arizona “strip,” that isolated section which is completely cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon’s impassable gorge.

Our route, on the map we were following, was peppered with names — Wolf Hole Mountain, Mustang Knoll, Sullivan Draw, Diamond Butte. Francis was too busy trying to steer around and avoid the knolls and buttes and bumps in the road to enjoy the larger ones, shown on the map. This was a little-used, lonesome road. Or rather, lonesome roads. At one place, three unmarked possible routes offered us a multiple choice.

Eeny, meeny, miney, mo.

We hoped that we had chosen correctly. But not being sure — in a lonely land — brings feelings of apprehension. The appearance of what looked like ranch buildings far ahead was the most welcome sight since entering the strip.

Ranch house it was. No one was about. We knocked at the door. No response. We went out toward the barn. A middle-aged woman, browned from the wind and sun, emerged from the structure and saw us. We thought she might be frightened at the sight of strangers. But instead of fright there was surprising warmth in her greeting. We were soon introducing ourselves to — and becoming acquainted with — Mattie Kent — Mrs. William A. Kent of Tuweep, Arizona.

“Tuweep — oh, that’s just short for Toroweap,” she explained, in answer to one of the flood of questions which we unloosed on her.

“It’s still quite a ways down to the Point. But, yes, you’re on the right road.” Between answers to our questions she invited us up to the house.

“It’s lonesome here now. My husband had to go to Las Vegas for some machinery parts.”

We learned that they usually went into St. George for regular supplies. Now, for several days, she would be alone — in charge of the ranch, milking the cows and doing the chores.

We found that they had a son, Hugh Kent, living in Southern California and we promised to phone him when we returned home. We made another pleasant discovery. Mattie Kent served meals to the occasional outsiders who came this way.

“When we come back out, we’ll surely stop,” we assured her.

As we drove on we were both quiet. Meeting Mrs. Kent had been our only human contact since leaving St. George. We thought about the lonely life of this couple, living on the edge of time — Grand Canyon time.

Our excitement returned as the great rocks of the Toroweap Rim became visible. We parked the Jeep and scrambled over rough ground to stand on the very edge.

Here was the most precipitous drop that we had ever seen in Grand Canyon. Far below, the architect of all this wonder — the Colorado River — was flowing in the rock-ribbed channel of its narrow gorge. In the more familiar parts of the Canyon, such as the Bright Angel area, that gorge gives way to the ten-mile wide — or more — expanse of the upper walls. Here at Toroweap the narrow walls of the gorge came straight up to meet our eyes. We looked almost straight down.

Cork was certainly right in his description: “One of the most stunning spots in the world. You’ll be more than a mile (6000 ft.) above the Colorado River, the walls of the inner gorge of the Grand Canyon are closer here than at any point farther east; the entire experience is one that you cannot believe is possible . . . If you’ve seen all the other points of the Grand Canyon, the devil and the angel have one more knockout punch to throw at you, and this is it!”2

As we peered into the deep Canyon we felt it was exactly as Coyle described it. This was it! The depth, the colors, the roughness, the grandeur. Standing here alone, with the silence all around us, and in us, we felt a great calm of our spirits. The intangibles of this world are perhaps the most real things, at least they are the things which give life its zest and excitement!

A lonesome point in time, for us too. The sun was casting long shadows, purpling the cliffs; we thought that some Beethoven music would fit such a scene. It was a new experience in depth and silence as we stood and waited until the sun was lost to view as the earth turned on its axis. As the earth turns we are no longer the same — we change just as the earth changes on its journey.

Night, with its starry heaven, clothed us in a subtle softness. We realized we had not eaten since early morning. Gathering a few sticks of dry greasewood (Toroweap is the Paiute Indian word for “Greaswood Valley”) we built a small fire and opened a can of beans, which we hurriedly heated in our Dutch oven. We put our bread on top to heat while we sliced some cheese. A small tin can held water, and when it was steaming we put some special vegetable-mineral seasoning into it. It made a delicious broth, assuring us of a good night’s sleep. A can of pears made a refreshing dessert.

The moon came over the horizon, and added to the mystery of the sky and the landscape. It was bright enough to read the dial on our watches. The silence was broken by the baying of coyotes, letting us know that night creatures were around us. It wouldn’t be the West without them. We call them night buglers!

Later we walked to the Rim again, peering into the deep abyss, and discovered that the moon had caught the ripples of the flowing Colorado, making it into a dancing stream. We were awed at the magnificence of it all, loathe to turn in for the night. We realized, as we made up our Jeep bed, that we were absolutely happy with this exciting adventure. Here we were in a place that the Indians called Toroweap and the breeze was wafting us to sleep with the tangy fragrance of its placename, greasewood..

Next morning we were at the Rim by dawn, just letting our sight penetrate down into the depths. We spent much of the day there, writing and reading, and looking.

It was down somewhere in this area at the bottom of this mighty slit that Major John Wesley Powell and his party, in 1869, had found evidence of volcanic action and enormous lava flows. As we sat there, in complete isolation and just a little bit lonely, we thought about those early explorers.

Powell, we feel, has scarcely been given the full credit he deserves for the enormity of his achievements. He was the first navigator of the Colorado. His daring exploits — conquering the wild rapids of an unknown mighty river — place him among the heroes of American exploration. If he did not actually give the Canyon its name he was the one who popularized it in his reports, until this became Grand Canyon.

He was founder and director of both the United States Geological Survey and the Bureau of American Ethnology. The value of his contributions to the study of the American Indians cannot be measured.

He established the system of geological and topographical maps that are still in use.

He became the most influential scientist in government in his time.

It all seemed so long ago, but time is a relative quality, especially in the Grand Canyon. Francis’ geology professor at the University of Michigan, Professor William H. Hobbs, had once been an associate of Major Powell. Hobbs’ book, which Francis studied, had many references to Powell and to the Canyon.3 Our dear friend, the late Dr. Frederick Hodge, former director of the Los Angeles Southwest Museum, had often assisted Powell, and had given one of the eulogies at his memorial service on September 26, 1902 — the day Francis’ brother (see chapter 1) was born.

(In 1984 we had a letter from Dr. Hodge’s widow, Gene, in which she recounted an interesting episode at Grand Canyon. She wrote: “Fred and I spent ten days at the North Rim in 1941. Major Powell’s daughter was there at the same time. A pipe burst in her cottage and flooded it. With a great sense of humor she said, ‘Now I can imagine I am on the river with my father.”)

Cone’s book was on the front seat of our Jeep and Helen opened it to the last page of the Toroweap chapter. “To stand at Toroweap Point is a requisite for anyone who wants to qualify for the degree of Grand Canyon graduate. It is the last and highest class that the school has to offer.”

We felt that we at least partly deserved the degree of Grand Canyon graduates, although there were still so many things about it to learn and experience. Like most graduates, we knew there were years before we would finish our postgraduate work. Knowledge of and about the Canyon is a lifelong occupation. Anyone who has walked the trails, visited the viewpoints, studied the Canyon and its history, geology, and all the other ologies, will never be the same. It surely changes one into a better human being. It is possible to bow in gratitude to a Canyon for all the knowledge it has imparted.

Next morning, for over an hour, back in Mattie Kent’s kitchen, we partook of a graduation breakfast.